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The ancient origins, different forms of heroin

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Posted: Friday, November 22, 2002 10:00 pm

Heroin use in the United States has a long and bitter history.

It's not a new drug, although it keeps evolving into different forms including the so-called "black tar" heroin from Mexico, which has come to dominate the market in the Western United States in the last two decades.

And while heroin began its modern resurgence in America during the drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll era of the 1960s, its deadly effects are not unique to our modern culture.

Indeed, while fad drugs may come and go, heroin, like some deadly tortoise, just keeps plodding along claiming victims as it goes.

Yet, according to David F. Musto, a medical historian and professor at the Yale University Child Safety Center, "The extensive history of heroin is almost totally unknown, even to policy makers." The study of the history of heroin, Musto added, is "not a question of the last five or 10 years," but one of "the commercial introduction and spread of heroin around the world in the last 100 years."

But what is heroin?

Simply put, it is an opium derivative that, without exception, causes severe physical and mental dependence when used. Pure heroin is a white powder with a decidedly bitter taste that is normally dissolved and injected.

For many years, a single dose of heroin (termed a "bag") contained about 100 milligrams of which less than 10 percent was actually heroin. In fact, the drug was often diluted at rates ranging from nine-to-one to as high as 99-to-one with everything from sugar to starch, powdered milk and even quinine. Recent statistics show that heroin purity varies from 1 to 98 percent with a national average of approximately 35 percent.

Additionally, in the American West a form of heroin known as "black tar" now dominates the market, especially among youthful users. Black tar is a crudely processed form of heroin manufactured illegally in Mexico. Its name stems from its sticky dark brown or black appearance in something akin to roofing tar.

Most often sold on the streets in its tar-like state, the drug's purity usually ranges between 40 and 80 percent and can be diluted with substances such as burnt cornstarch or even converted into a powder. Most users prefer to inject black tar intravenously rather than snort or smoke it.

As noted above, heroin is not a new drug, or a new problem in the United States. Both go back more than a century, but any study of the history of heroin must include its two predecessors, opium and morphine.

The use of opiates literally dates back to the dawn of history - some 6,000 years ago. Ancient Summerian texts refer to the opium poppy as the "joy plant." During the next three millenniums, opium, used medicinally as a sedative and soporific, spread from one ancient civilization to the next - the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Cypriots, Greeks, Romans and Arabs. It was Alexander the Great who introduced the drug into Persia and India when he conquered them in the third century B.C.

Somewhere around the 8th century A.D., Arab traders introduced opium, grown in the extensive poppy fields outside the Egyptian city of Thebes, into China, where it too was used as a medicine until the 17th century when it was discovered that the drug could be smoked.

By the 19th century, the British were supplying the Chinese with most of their opium. Indeed, the British East India Company, regarded by many scholars as history's greatest drug cartel, ran a vast drug empire in which it sold opium legally in India and then smuggled it into China.

The reaction of Chinese officials to a foreign-induced drug problem, which saw rates as high as 80 percent among adult males in some provinces, was decidedly hostile. And, when they began destroying British opium imports in the mid-1800s, it sparked the two so-called Opium Wars in which British military might forced the Chinese to sign treaties ceding Hong Kong, legalizing the opium trade and paying more than $100 million (in modern dollars) in compensation for lost opium stocks.

However, the British involvement in the drug market wasn't limited to pushing it to foreigners, often at bayonet point. Victorian England was far from a drug free zone when it came to opium. In that highly class-conscious society, its use knew no social barriers. The most popular forms of consumption were laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) or the taking of an opium pill.

And, then came morphine - a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed-pod of the Asian poppy plant. Developed in 1810, it was hailed as the "wonder drug" of its era.

Morphine would - and did - silence the pain that came with traumatic injuries or surgery. Moreover, not only was the patient allowed to be temporarily free of pain, but also to experience an intense mental euphoria.

Because of these effects, the German pharmacist, F.W.A. Serturner in 1811 named the new drug after the Greek god of dreams - Morpheus.

By the mid-1850s, morphine had become readily available in the U.S. and was the drug of choice when it came to treating severe pain. However, what the medical world didn't yet realize was how addictive the drug was. But it was a very short-lived ignorance.

With the coming of the American Civil War, morphine was administered routinely by surgeons to lessen the sufferings of the hundred of thousands of horribly wounded soldiers, Union and Confederate, who swamped both sides' ill-prepared military medical systems. By the time the war ended in 1865, tens of thousands of former soldiers had become morphine addicts.

The first alarms were sounded by government pension examiners in the late 1860s and the realization swiftly came that little more than a decade after morphine's arrival in this country, the nation had a major drug epidemic on its hands. And, to make matters worse, the medical establishment didn't have a clue about how to treat the problem.

Additionally, opium dens popped up throughout the "Wild West" during the post-Civil War era, due in large part by the influx of Chinese immigrants brought over to work on the railroads. There were very few sanctions - legal or social - against the dens and such legendary Westerners as Wild Bill Hickcock and Kit Carson were known to frequent them.

Indeed, so popular were the "dens" that many cowboys coming into a town after long cattle drives passed up "bellying up to the bar" in favor of an opium den where they would spend several days and nights in a seemingly constant dream-state, which eventually led to their being addicted.

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Obviously, both opium and morphine had dramatically moved from their original medicinal intents to become severe social problems, which, in turn, led doctors and scientists to desperately search for an "answer" to the drug problem.

That "answer" seemingly came in 1874 when a new drug, "heroin" was synthesized from morphine in Germany where it was hailed as a "safe, non-addictive" substitute for morphine. Heroin came from the German trademark name "Heroia," which, in turn, came from "Heroisch" which in German medical terminology meant large, powerful or extreme when referring to a drug which showed pronounced effects when administered even in small doses.

However, its use was very limited until the German pharmaceutical company Bayer began marketing it commercially as a cough medicine in 1898.

Thus, the latest "wonder" drug was quickly accepted as a painkiller with the doctors freely administering it with no knowledge of its potential for addiction. In the United States, it was marketed as a safe substitute for morphine as well as a cure for everything from alcohol withdraws to cancer, depression, sluggishness, coughs, colds, tuberculosis and even the infirmities of old age.

Thus with the dawn of the 20th century was born the American heroin addict.

It took the medical profession the better part of two decades to fully realize the dangers of heroin use, but by that time the underworld had found a ready market on the streets of every major American city.

Moreover, since there were no laws against heroin - or virtually any drug, for that matter - fast-buck entrepreneurs made a killing selling over-the-counter drug kits complete with glass barreled hypodermic needles, and vials of opiates (morphine or heroin) and cocaine neatly tucked away in finely engraved tin cases. Additionally, like the English Victorians, laudanum was hawked as a popular cure-all elixir administered freely to both adults and children much in the same way as aspirin is today.

By 1914, heroin addiction had become a problem too big and too dangerous to ignore, so Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which was full of good intentions but so lacking in legal teeth that is was scarcely better than no law at all.

Finally, in 1920 things began to move. The American Medical Association decreed "that heroin be eliminated from all medicinal preparations and that it should not be administered, prescribed nor dispensed; and that the importation, manufacture and sale of heroin should be prohibited in the United States."

Acting on the momentum set forth by the nation's doctors, Congress passed the Dangerous Drug Act which had some real legal bite to it. The act banned over-the-counter purchases of morphine, heroin, cocaine and laudanum-like mixtures as well as regulating all distribution and sales.

However, it was a case of shutting the barn door after the horse got out. During the first two decades of the 20th century, heroin use had flourished to such a degree that by 1925 there were an estimated 200,000 addicts in the nation. And, with the increased number of users came rising crime rates. In 1922, there were 260 murders in New York City, many directly linked to the heroin trade and in 1924 Special Deputy Police Commissioner Carleton Simon reported that "94 percent of the criminal drug addicts arrested in New York City used heroin regularly."

Although the legitimate production of heroin virtually ceased after 1924 due to stricter U.S. and international laws, the demand for the drug, with some notable exceptions, continued to climb as the addicts' needs were met by drug traffickers. There was a sharp decline during the Great Depression when money was scarce and World War II when strict border controls and lack of available shipping made supplies hard to get. Indeed, to stretch what was available as far as possible, dealers diluted the drug to where the heroin obtained by addicts was often less than 2 percent pure.

However, since the end of World War II, various parts of the world - especially the "Golden Triangle" in Southeast Asia - have become centers of the heroin traffic, where drug lords have corrupted or intimidated local governments and found a thriving user market in the U.S.

Compounding the problem, in order to obtain the drug lords' support in the fight against communism, both the U.S. and France in the 1950s supplied them with arms and air transport operations. This, in turn, resulted in a marked rise in the flow of heroin into this country.

The problem only increased in the 1960s with the combination of American involvement in Vietnam and the counter-culture at home.

Heroin regularly found its way into the cargo bays of the CIA's Air America planes flying out of Southeast Asia. It would then be shipped to the U.S. via Europe and the "French Connection." Meanwhile, a good number of U.S. soldiers became addicts while serving in Vietnam where the purity of the drug could be as high as 95 percent. By the end of the 1960s, the number of heroin addicts in the United States was estimated at 750,000.

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act which divided all drugs into four categories and set more rigorous regulations and harsher penalties for narcotic abuse. Three years later, President Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration under the Department of Justice consolidating virtually all federal drug enforcement powers in a single agency.

With the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975, the availability of Golden Triangle heroin temporarily subsided. However, the search for new sources for raw opium quickly focused on Mexico's Sierra Madre and "Mexican Mud" replaced "China White" as the main form of heroin in the U.S. for the next few years.

In a combined effort, the U.S. and Mexican governments began a successful eradication program spraying poppy fields with Agent Orange. However, drug dealers simply looked for new sources and found them in the "Golden Crescent" of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

Much of the 1980s and 1990s saw a global cat-and-mouse game between the DEA and various international drug cartels. Eradication programs in Burma, Pakistan, Mexico and Peru were indecisive at best.

By 1992, the center of heroin trafficking into the U.S. had moved from Europe to Columbia, however, the Golden Triangle continued to flourish as did poppy growing regions in Mexico which ceased to be a transit point and became another main supplier of the drug to U.S. markets.

Not surprisingly, there has been a marked increase in usage over the past few years due, law enforcement officials say, to lower prices, greater availability and potency as well as more young sellers (mostly gang members) in the marketplace.

Indeed, a 1996 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration revealed an estimated 171,000 new heroin users that year in a continual upward spiral first noted in 1992. According to federal officials, it was the fastest and most significant spike in heroin abuse statistics since the late 1960s.

Moreover, the survey analysis - due to the likelihood of underreporting and under-coverage - was highly conservative in its conclusions. Even so, estimates of the number of people who have at least used heroin once during the year surveyed ranged from 2.3 million in 1979 to a low of 1.6 million in 1992, to a record high of 2.4 million by 1996.

Thus, in the second year of the new century, the drug fight goes on with international heroin trafficking organizations headquartered in China, Columbia, Mexico and Nigeria, aggressively marketing the drug in the U.S. and American drug officials at the federal, state and local levels equally aggressive in combating its importation and distribution, but with decidedly mixed results.

And, that means not only is the final chapter on the history of heroin in the United States far from written, but the final volume has even been begun.

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